On the Influence of Homer
Homer. British Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The two epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey are widely regarded as the foundational works of ancient Greek literature. These two masterpieces have gone on to influence generation after generation, centuries after they were composed, until the present day.
Over the centuries, the two works have come to be regarded as two of the most influential works of western literature in particular and world literature in general. They are still widely read, studied, analyzed, interpreted, translated, and admired in the contemporary world we live in today.
These two epics, as most of you already know, are attributed to a mythical, legendary, and iconic figure of human history, a certain man named Homer. Just Homer, a name whose origin and meaning are yet unknown and still debated by scholars. This one single name has gone on to have such a tremendous impact and influence on world literature that one can be sure that no other writer would ever achieve such a gigantic feat again.
The Iliad and the Odyssey have cemented Homer’s reputation as the greatest poet of all time and as one of the most influential writers to have ever walked the face of the earth.
Today, Homer and his two epic poems are known and revered all across the world, on every continent, and in every country. And that is precisely why I have chosen Homer and his works as the subject of this essay.
Since almost nothing concrete is known about Homer’s life, about the man behind the legend and the myth, I shall not bore you with too many details of his life. Anyway, I possess no details to do that in the first place.
In fact, so little is actually known about Homer that many modern and contemporary scholars claim that he probably did not even exist and that in all likelihood, the two poems were produced by two different authors independently, who were both inspired by older oral traditions passed down through the centuries.
In short, there was probably no man named Homer who actually sat at his table and wrote down these two epics. Sorry to disappoint you.
However, like all things ancient and historic, there is necessarily a lot of speculation and guesswork involved in figuring all this out as it really happened, making it a task not just difficult but essentially impossible.
So much speculation inevitably gives birth to contradictory theories, and, therefore, there are several scholars who have expressed views contrary to the one that he never existed. And among all this guesswork and speculation and fiction and half-truths, the truth, as in most cases, is lost forever and shall never be known.
Homer, some scholars speculate, was born sometime around the 8th century BC in a place that is still not known. Some say he was from the ancient region of Ionia on the western coast of Anatolia, present-day Turkey, and that he was the son of the river Meles (yes, you read it correctly, a river!) and the nymph Critheis. At some point in his life, he turned blind, no one knows how, and began living on the Greek island of Chios as a wandering, traveling bard.
Such accounts can be found in many ancient biographies of Homer, such as Life of Homer by the Pseudo-Herodotus, Life of Homer by the Pseudo-Plutarch, and the Contest of Homer and Hesiod.
Now, you certainly do not need me to point out how true or false or how reliable these accounts are. In all likelihood, they are mere legends that have sprung up due to a lack of concrete information and evidence.
The Iliad and the Odyssey are not the only two works attributed to Homer. Over the centuries, several other works such as the Little Iliad, the Homeric Hymns, the Thebaid, the Cypria, the Nostoi, the Epigoni, the Phocais, the Capture of Oechalia, etc., have been attributed to him. However, none of these attributions can be considered authentic or accurate.
But this is not surprising at all. Being a central figure in Greek culture and western civilization in general, Homer received a lot of credit for works that were probably never his. His mythical stature made him and these works attributed to him a staple of ancient Greek culture.
In this essay, we shall only touch upon the Iliad and the Odyssey, and their combined, never-ending, undying, eternal influence on the world.
For those of you who do not know, the Iliad is an epic ancient Greek poem said to have been composed by Homer sometime around the 8th century BC.
Divided into 24 books and composed in Homeric Greek, the Iliad, along with the Odyssey, is regarded as one of the oldest existing works of western literature. The poem is set during the famous decade-long Trojan War, that is the siege of the city of Troy (also known as Ilion or Ilium) by the Achaeans (Greeks) after Paris of Troy took Helen from Menelaus, the King of Sparta.
The Trojan War is one of the most important and famous events in Greek Mythology. And set in the background of this war, the poem depicts the battles and events during the weeks of a quarrel between Achilles (the greatest Greek warrior) and King Agamemnon.
Although the entire narrative of the poem only covers a few weeks in the final year of the war, it frequently refers to several Greek legends about the beginnings of the siege, such as the cause of the war, the gathering of the warriors for the siege, etc.
Then the narrative shifts toward prophesizing future events such as the fall of troy and the death of Achilles, which do not really form a part of the end of the poem but are alluded to in prophecy. The narrative of the poem comes to an end before these events can take place.
In this manner, the Iliad masterfully captures and covers the entire tale of the Trojan War.
The influence of the Iliad since it was first composed ran far and wide in Greek culture, so much so that by the late 5th century BC, reading, knowing, and reciting the Iliad (as well as the Odyssey) was regarded as a sign of a man of learning, a man of true intellectual standing. The poem was seen as an important guide for any educated Greek citizen of the time.
Moreover, the warfare depicted in the poem also had a tremendous and profound effect on Greek warfare in general in the categories of tactics, ideology, and mindset of the commanders.
Its influence continued to spread and flourish over the course of the centuries, influencing the literature of various nations and the world at large. During the classical Greek period, it became a staple and standard work of great importance and continued to be so throughout the Hellenistic, Byzantine, and Roman periods.
The subjects, themes, and characters depicted in the Iliad became favorite topics among ancient Greek dramatists and tragedians such as Aeschylus, who is often regarded as the father of tragedy.
As these plays and dramas, along with the poem itself, became more and more popular in Greek culture, they also slowly began expanding the poem’s influence across Europe, eventually becoming an important part of European culture as well with the resurgence of interest in Greek literature and antiquity during the Renaissance.
The Iliad is considered the first and most important and influential work of the western canon. Over the years, it was translated into various European vernacular languages and Latin as well, allowing its influence to spread more quickly and far and wide.
The work was studied in schools by students as well as examined and interpreted by learned academics and scholars across Europe at first, and then across the world. The poem was translated into several Asian languages as well, such as Arabic, Pahlavi, Syriac, Hindi, Chinese, etc.
The themes and characters of the poem have constantly found themselves in the art, literature, plays, movies, etc., of the subsequent generations, even to this very day. Famous examples would be the 2004 movie Troy and Madeline Miller’s 2011 novel The Song of Achilles.
Even the great William Shakespeare used the plot of the Iliad for his play Troilus and Cressida, although he reversed traditional views on the events of the Trojan War and made it into a comedy.
English translations of the Iliad continue to be published by authors to this day, each trying their best to capture and convey as closely as possible the true vision, complexity, and intention of the original work.
Now enough about the Iliad. Let us talk about the Odyssey now.
The Odyssey is the second epic poem attributed to Homer. Being one of the oldest existing works of western literature, the Odyssey is still widely read, studied, and interpreted in the present day and age.
Divided into 24 books just like the Iliad, the Odyssey depicts the journey of the Greek hero Odysseus (or Ulysses) of Ithaca, back to his home after the end of the Trojan War in which he plays a key role.
His journey back home lasted for 10 long years, during which he encountered many obstacles and perils and saw all his crew mates killed. Due to his delayed absence, he was presumed to be dead, leaving his wife Penelope and son Telemachus to deal with a group of suitors who were competing for Penelope’s hand in marriage.
As opposed to the Iliad, which primarily depicts the lives and exploits of kings and soldiers during the Trojan War, the Odyssey centers more around women and slaves, which were rare subjects to be found in ancient Greek literature.
Much like the Iliad, the Odyssey was composed in Homeric Greek sometime around the 7th or 8th century BC, becoming a classic of the Greek literary canon by the 6th century BC. Contemporary scholars generally agree on the fact that the Odyssey and the Iliad were composed independently by different poets and that the two formed as part of a long oral tradition.
Scholars came to this conclusion after noticing several differences in the narrative style, theology, ethics, vocabulary, and geographical perspective, as well as in the imitative character of certain passages of the Odyssey in relation to the Iliad.
The Odyssey is also now regarded as one of the most important and influential works of the western canon. Its influence has continued to grow and expand over the centuries, becoming a part of contemporary culture.
Reading, studying, and reciting the poem became the sign of a learned man of high intellectual standing. Every educated Greek citizen had to have read and studied the work to be considered educated. The poem just as quickly became a part of the Greek and then the European cultural fabric, and was translated, interpreted, studied in schools, examined by scholars, and adapted into plays and dramas.
The two epic poems became the basis of education in ancient Mediterranean society. And although many scholars regard the Iliad as more influential, the Odyssey is often described as literature’s most popular, captivating, and enduring narrative.
The themes, subjects, and characters, as well as references to the Odyssey, have occurred in several subsequent works of literature such as the Inferno (1320) by Dante Alighieri, Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce, The Penelopiad (2005) by Margaret Atwood, and Circe (2018) by Madeline Miller.
Countless plays, operas, movies, and television series have adapted the Odyssey for contemporary modern audiences to enjoy.
The Odyssey has managed to capture the popular imagination, perhaps even more so than the Iliad. However, both epics have managed to become an important part of our cultural fabric, especially in the western world.
Believed to have been first orally transmitted and then later put into written form sometime between the 8th and 6th century BC, the two epics are written in an artificial literary language that is only used in epic hexameter poetry. And even though Homeric Greek is primarily based on Ionic Greek, it shows features of multiple Greek dialects and periods.
As is only natural, a lot of information we possess today is based on pure speculation by the scholars and historians of the preceding centuries as well as contemporary ones. Some scholars believe that the poems were created in the 8th century BC and continued to be orally transmitted with several revisions and alterations until they were written down sometime in the 6th century BC. It was only then that the poems were divided into 24 books, mostly done by the Hellenistic scholars of Alexandria, Egypt.
Some other scholars hold that the two epics were dictated to a scribe by the poet and that the versions we have inherited were originally orally-dictated texts.
And if this was not enough, some ancient scholars went as far as to claim that Homer was in fact an eyewitness to the Trojan War, while some others continue to question if the Trojan War actually ever even took place, and if yes, then when and where.
Sadly, we will never find the truth to all these theories and speculations. We can comfortably admit now that the truth shall never be truly and accurately discovered.
What we can be sure of is that these epics depict customs and elements of the material world that are derived from different periods of Greek history. Their significance was such that they became subjects of intense scholarship from ancient times through to the present day.
The epics were used as school texts during the ancient Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman periods. Some scholars hold that they were the very first literary works taught to students in schools. As the poems became a central part of classical Greek education, extensive commentaries on them were written to explain them or to explain parts of them that were linguistically or culturally difficult to understand.
Even the Stoics were influenced by the epics, believing that they conveyed Stoic doctrines containing hidden wisdom. This outlook laid great emphasis on the poems as works full of great deep wisdom, thereby giving Homer the image of a philosopher rather than just a poet.
A time came when the poems were so extensively used in education that many scholars began to speculate that Homer’s primary purpose for composing them was to educate.
As the centuries piled up, so did the number of commentaries and studies on the Iliad and the Odyssey, so much so that studying the poems became a whole branch of study in itself. Whether we realize it or not, the two poems are now a permanent part of our popular culture and have become classics of world literature.
Speculations and debates continue. The studying and interpreting continue. The influence and importance of the Iliad and the Odyssey cannot be denied or stopped, for that too continues. The poems continue to live on, and through them so does that mythical and legendary man we call Homer.
Whether a man named Homer really existed or not, I do not know. I would like to believe so but I cannot say for sure. No one can. But I think that is irrelevant now. It does not matter at all. I believe some myths are best left undestroyed, some facts are best left undiscovered. The mystery surrounding Homer, I feel, is important to our history, and so it should remain.
One thing is for sure, this mysterious man we call Homer was hands down the greatest of all great poets.